Wednesday, February 14, 2018

an interview with Time of Culture - about "culture-time"

A 2013 interview with Andrzej Marzec for Time of Culture that lays out my thoughts on the topic as they had evolved in the years after the book's publication.

·                    How should we understand the very concept of “retromania”? In which way retro strategy is different from the traditional use of archive? Every epoch somehow relates and refers to the past epochs. What is so distinct, peculiar in this “retromaniac” particular return to the past?

I’m not sure “retromania” is a concept, really.  It’s a word I used a title for the book -  and I settled on it towards the end of the writing process, after having failed to come up with a title I preferred! In the end I think it was the right title, though. I see ‘retromania’ not as a concept or a theory but as an open-ended evocative term for a bunch of phenomena to do with retro, vintage, nostalgia, revivalism, curatorial aesthetics, commemorative culture, collecting, reissuing, etc . These phenomena are related and intermeshed but they also have their own discrete trajectories and specific determinants, and they can each be traced back in history a good way (in some cases several decades, if not longer). But the convergence of these tendencies in the first decade of the 21st Century adds up to a cultural landscape that seems to deserve a term like “retromania”. It’s a good ambivalent word for the overall mood of the culture. For a condition that could be seen as a malaise, but also as something distinctive and defining of our time, with aspects that are exciting and culturally productive.

 “Mania” is suggestive of something out of control, an addiction or obsession, something on the edge of madness. It suggests both craziness and a craze (in the sense of fashion or fad).  But mania also contains the idea of excitement and enthusiasm. And that fits because there are aspects of retro culture that are enjoyable and compelling. Certainly retro’s charms are something that I’m far from immune to.  The book is written from the standpoint of someone who is as prey to retromaniacal tendencies as anyone.  It’s a self-critique as much as critique of anybody else.

Incidentally I discovered recently in my files a piece  I wrote in 1990 that was about reissues and retrospection in rock – it was published by the Guardian newspaper under a different title, but the title I gave it was “Retromania”. So these interrelated phenomena that I call “retromania”, they have been building for a while. And in fact they’ve been a concern of mine almost from the start of my writing (I was doing fanzines from 1984 and writing for Melody Maker from 1986).  But I think they have built to a new intensity since the rise of broadband internet circa 2000, which enabled forms of sharing, collecting, documentation and archiving that are like nothing we could have dreamed of before.  That has definitely added greatly to the manic aspect of retromania – the ease of access to the pop cultural past, the instant-ness and the total recall that’s possible.

But – as you say-- not only have all previous eras of human civilization had particular modes of relating to the past, it’s also true that the anxiety about an excess of history and historical consciousness is not a new thing either. Look at Nietzche’s On the Use and Abuse of History For Life. Reading that, I was surprised to encounter so many pre-echoes of my own doubts and disquiets. That was written in 1873!

2.            Vocalist of the band "The Blouse" in one of her songs sings: "I was in the future yesterday, but now I'm in the past and it keeps taking me back." When we look at contemporary culture, it seems that any way of thinking about the future is already behind us. We rework and use the futuristic vision of the past years (60’-80’), but without any hope for their fulfillment, we don’t want to create our particular versions of future. Is there really no future in front of us now and the only future we can imagine is the one that has failed us and never really happened? Does the future remain in past as a kind of relic?

It does feel like we have somehow gone past the future, and now confront the coming decades without any set of mental images about what life will be like.  Whereas for most of the 20th Century, there were all these pictures and notions of what tomorrow’s world would look, as drastically different from the present.  Buildings would get bigger, planes would get faster, robots would do all the shit jobs. Or think of the electric charge that numerals like "1999" and "2001" seemed to possess. We don't have any such year-dates that shimmer before us with a sense of possibility, strangeness, or even as a benchmark.

This is the shift that William Gibson and Bruce Sterling have been talking about – the fading away of the capital ‘F’  Future and the onset of atemporality, as they call it.  A generation that lives in the digital now.

What was once called the future, and seen as a scenario of promise, or at least of dramatic and spectacular difference from the present (dystopia), now seems like it might look more or less the same as the present. Or may even be significantly worse.  On the one hand, technological advances of certain kinds seem to be proceeding at a good pace (particularly medical and communications/information tech/personal computing), but in other areas like architecture, high speed travel, outer space exploration, there seems to be a standstill.   All those mid-20th Century visions of tomorrow’s world seem corny, yet also induce a pained wistfulness, because they never transpired. Science fiction itself has gone out of fashion, and it has been displaced in terms of youth taste and popular taste by a resurgence of fantasy. Tolkien, not Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke.

3.            It seems that there is something strange with the category of newness, we still desire novelty, but I think we cannot or do not want to create it anymore. Do you think that this concept (newness) is still useful and diagnoses properly phenomena and transformations of contemporary culture? Can you give some examples of completely new developments and trends in contemporary music?

As with “the future” or “futuristic”, the idea of the new lingers, I think, but in a kind of painful way, it’s not completely buried and forgotten but nor does it work like it used to.

Some of what “newness” provided is still provided through the latest increments in digital technology – new games, new apps, new internet stuff.  My son, who is 13, is buzzed up on this and is chasing wanting the latest thing in terms of games, computers, social media, netstuff. But I don’t know if the category of the new or of “progress’ in the cultural-artistic-political senses means anything to him: the idea that things get better. And I know that the science fiction concept that ruled my teenage years – outer space, the very idea of the 21st Century—mean nothing to him.

I can’t think of many really new things in music. Some of the bass sounds in dubstep – the wobble, brostep, Skrillex end of it – seem pretty extreme, if not completely new then a development along on an axis of intensification from things being done in the Nineties. And similarly the use of AutoTune and “vocal science” effect, while building on Nineties techniques, seems to be a growth area – it seems to be a way that musicians indicate contemporaneity and “this is now”. You get that across the board from mainstream pop and rap to underground and experimental music – an interest in vocal weirdness, the denatured and posthuman voice.

4.            Every new beginning is described by the means of the past at first, with a usage of concepts from the perspective of a bygone era. Just to mention that when first TV sets appeared, they were calling them radios with pictures. Do you think that process of describing contemporary culture from the perspective of the past is somehow similar to  interpreting TV set via radio? Putting it simply: is the present time secondary and imitative, or is it the beginning of something new, but we cannot even find the right category to describe this reality?

Well, TV is kind of like radio with pictures, isn’t it? Most of the things TV did and have continued to do – dramas, soap opera serials, news programmes, documentaries, music – are all things radio did, just restricted to the audio dimension.  The unique idiomatic things that TV could do – experimental TV and video in the Seventies, or Eno’s idea of ambient TV that would be more like a picture on your living room wall that something you’d watch – these either remained an obscure, minority art-world function, or never took off at all.

However I do get what you’re talking about – there is a tendency for critics to appraise the new medium using the terms and concepts and metrics of value that apply to a previous medium. So cinema (even now, still -- in mainstream coverage at least) gets assessed in the terms of literature or theatre – plot, acting, characterization, dialogue – and not so much in terms of cinematography, editing, effects (the areas that are proper and unique to the cinematic medium). Everyone knows who the actors and directors are but only your hardcore cineaste theorists know who did the cinematography, lighting, costumes, editing, décor and props, grading, etc.

The same goes for rock criticism, particularly in its early days, --  critics focused on the lyrics or the social meaning, had very little to say about groove or sound. That partly reflected their background as students of humanities, usually English Literature or History or Political Science.  But it also reflected a culture-lag syndrome of the kind you’re talking about.

5.            What do you think about hipster culture, what does it mean for you and how does it influence the condition of contemporary culture? Why does this category function rather as an insult and the object of derision, in fact no one wants to admit that he/she is a hipster? Does the diving for remnants in the dumpster of culture is so shameful or the very concept of a hipster is identified with the lack of any taste and competence?

Hipster, as a phenomenon, is closely bound up with retro, but it’s not identical with it. Retro and vintage is one of the ways hipsters express themselves and accumulate their subcultural capital. But it can also be done through cosmopolitan exoticism – through knowledge of other cultures, usually non-Western and subaltern cultures. So I talk about xenomania as a parallel phenomenon to retromania. Both retro and xeno have existed for decades, but again the internet has intensified both syndromes hugely.  You have hipsters who know about obscure music from the 1960s and 1970s (or increasingly going back before World War 2 to pre-war gospel and blues). But you also have hipsters – often the same hipsters – who are chasing strange new rhythms from the ghettoes of South America or Africa, things they find out about on YouTube. And sometimes you get retroxeno – which is the quest for super-obscure African music  only ever released on cassette in the 1970s, or Ocora field recordings, or New Wave music from the former Soviet Union...

The derision aimed at the hipster comes from an intuition that the process of turning music into semiotic capital, an index of coolness and superior skills at scavenging and hunting for things no one else knows about – that this is voiding the music of its value. The hipster modus operandi is decontextualising the music from the lifeworld where it actually had meaning and social purpose, and turning it into décor for your lifestyle or something that is “costuming the ego”.  Even when it’s driven by a genuine hunger for “the real”, the authentic... which is what it seems to be about in a lot of cases –  it comes out, unavoidably, as inauthentic.

But there’s hardly any of us who escape the taint of hipster... it’s more a sliding scale of tourism and vicariousness.

I sometimes think of myself as a hipster who isn’t good with clothes or hair...   a failed or partial hipster. I can do the music-taste part of hipsterism easily, not the other bits.  But I’m the wrong age group, also. I have too much mental and emotional baggage from a pre-hipster era.  If hipsterism is the voiding of bohemia of any actual dissident cultural value, then I still mostly belong emotionally to a world before that happened.  

6.            Who is a contemporary artist: genius, a curator, a thief, a plagiarist, a follower, or a consumer? You are interested in the concept of recreativity, could you tell me something more about this idea? How attitude towards originality, copying and imitating changes in our times? Are we able nowadays to steal somebody’s ideas or we just simple recreate them?

Recreativity is a term I came up with for a whole set of practices to do with remixing, reenactment, mash ups, parody, and also for the theories that have sprung up to celebrate these practices and to attack ideas of originality and innovation, along with the notion of copyright and intellectual property.  As with retro, there’s been a boom of these practices and their attendant theorizations in the last decade, but they also go back a long way – through appropriation art in the Seventies, back to Pop Art in the Sixties, all the way to the readymade and collage in the early 20th Century.  Not forgetting postmodernism which was in large part all about the rejection of the idea of originality and origins. And just in the context of pop music, there have been debates about sampling and “plunderphonics” and the remix going back to the early Eighties. So in an ironic way, these very 21st Century things like Nicolas Bourriaud’s theories about postproduction art and curatorial aesthetics, or things like the early 2000s fad for mash ups, they are themselves remixes of earlier ideas  or they are extensions of earlier practices of remixing and mashing-up.   They exemplify and perpetuate the very syndromes they identify and celebrate .

To me, the ideas seem exhausted, they feel like the 1980s all over again...  and they are used too often to justify work that is purely a rearrangement of existing elements, with no X Factor of newness. “The new is always old” has become a cliché and a defeatist creed.  I do not understand why people seem to find it a liberating concept, or refreshing.  It’s stale and old - and depressing!

To say that “all artists steal” doesn’t help explain how some artists transform what they steal and actually create the new. Which keeps on happening.

7.            Young generations don’t miss the past usually (they don’t have their own yet), so what is the reason for this overwhelming sense of nostalgia among youth nowadays? Do you perceive it as a sign of contestation, dissatisfaction with the present, disappointment with the future, refusal of its co-creation, anti-capitalist opposition to the production? Or is it simply an expression of laziness and unwillingness to take a risk? We can tell a lot about the past, but this is one of the most secure area we can imagine, nothing there is surprising or unexpected.

I don’t know if it’s nostalgia as such.  Probably there’s different levels and different motivations .  Some young people are fascinated by the past because the archives in their teeming clutter provide a space for exploration, you can discover things in the rubbish heap of history through which you’re sifting, and you can repurpose them. So it’s a form of cultural archaeology that can involve genuine interest in the past but also can be purely a present-minded, use-oriented approach – what can I do now with this old synth, this vintage garment, these bygone style of graphics or typography.  

But then for other young people maybe there is actual longing and yearning directed to these golden ages of music they’ve read about, the attraction is to music that seemed to be connected to history and to social energies in a way that few music today is. So that would be a self-defeating form of nostalgia, because by channeling energy towards music from the past they are by definition disconnecting themselves from history and from current social energies. 

Of course music from the past often has intrinsic qualities and value, in the same way that Shakespeare or Citizen Kane or whatever does.  I don’t have a problem with people listening to classic old music at all, in fact I think they should. It’s when they try to recreate it or to base an entire revivalist lifestyle around that... that’s when it gets problematic.

8.            Why we cannot forget about what is left? In your book you seem to claim that we are doomed to the past because of the improvement of archive technology – collecting data and access to information have never been so easy. If nostalgia is something authentic indeed or is it only facade or decoration and only the modern way of expression, rather form than essence?

It is interesting, and something that I don’t really explore in the book, how the idea of the generation gap has faded – the rejectionist impulse of youth doesn’t seem to apply anymore, in the sense of rejecting their parents’s music. Or in the early hyper-accelerated days of rock, it was rejecting your older brother and sister’s music. Glam fans seized on glam because they wanted their own thing, and the hippie / underground music of just a few years earlier belonged to their older brothers and sisters. Same with punk and New Wave: it created a dividing line in history. It would be many years before I listened to Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd... when I got into music in 1978, you just took it as read that the Old Wave of rock was utterly irrelevant, discredited, and actually devoid of any musical value. 

12.          Would you agree with the statement that titling this book Retromania you are also as the author filled with nostalgia? You quite frequently repeat that modern world is no longer the same as before. For example, today bands refer rather to the entire list of their inspiration ("playing as Joy Division") instead of manifest their differences and emphasize originality, no one is waiting for a new album as much as it happened before and so on. Your longing for the past seems to be rather nostalgia for the past type of albums production (not overproduction), their distribution (not YouTube) and consumption of music (not iPod or shuffle mode). You write about music, albums and bands as if they have lost their aura, uniqueness, inaccessibility and mystery.

I don’t know about that. Personally, I have all kinds of nostalgia for various periods of my life, and periods of culture. But I strongly resist this idea that when you talk about a decline, or a change even, in how culture works, or the nature of music – that this can be simply dismissed as nostalgia.  To point out that things are different in a certain respect, doesn’t necessarily mean that you want to go back.

An example: after punk and New Wave, it is simply undeniable that British rock bands, on average, were less groove-oriented and capable of “feel” than they were in the Sixties and pre-punk early Seventies. This is because of a number of factors:  punk discredited the idea of virtuosity and paying your dues, so that by the time they were getting make records, New Wave bands were less seasoned and tight as performing units; New Wave music had moved away from its grounding in blues and in American musical sources generally.  Now you can say that “feel” and “groove” are old fashioned values, if you want, or you can say that postpunk and New Wave made up for that diminishment through other aspects of the music being radical or exciting or fresh. But just taking that metric of value, it’s undeniable that the drumming in your average British band deteriorates from 1977 onwards and it has continued to deteriorate. (Partly I would say because anyone with a flair for rhythm has been more like to get into electronic dance music and apply to it drum machines, sample-loops, digital audio workstation programming etc). To say that this has happened isn’t nostalgic, it’s pointing to a real and measurable decline along one metric or axis of judgement.

So in terms of what I’m writing about in Retromania, I think the book can be seen as in part a neutral description of changes caused by the transition from an Analogue System to a Digital System.  Parts of the book – the stuff to do with YouTube and with filesharing and MP3s in particular – are a kind of phenomenology of digital life, an anatomy of its sensations and affects. The Analogue System made possible certain kinds of affect and convergence of energy;  these occur much less frequently or much more weakly in the Digital era, if at all. 

But since my expectations of music was shaped by experiencing those affects and living through such convergences of energy: postpunk, rave, etc) you could justifiably view Retromania as a requiem for the Analogue System.  There is an element of mourning the passage of an entire world and the kind of subjectivity shaped by it. The Analogue-era sense of culture-time as linearity and forward propulsion has been displaced by atemporality and a recursive, archival logic.  So the interest is what new convergences and affects are emerging out of this altered sense of time and space?  How will music function in the new order? So far it’s very unclear  --  mostly we are still living inside the wreckage of the Analogue System.  Will pop music have the privileged status it had or has it become just one zone or componenent with the entertainment landscape? The sense is that the old power and function that music had has decisively gone but we don’t know yet what powers and functions it will have.

13.          I know that you are planning a new book. What comes after retro and what will be the subject of your research this time? Will it be another come back of the past and you will continue threads started in Retromania or you will focus on completely new territory?

I had so many ideas after Retromania came out, through doing so many interviews and public appearances, but also just thinking further on the subject, responding both publicly and mentally - in my own head - to critiques of the book, etc, that I could easily write another book on the subject. There’s lots of things I should have said, and I can see ways of making the argument clearer and more far reaching - and inarguable! But I think it’s time to move on to a new subject.  The next book is partly historical and partly about the present: its main subject is glam rock, but I’m going to be connecting that to contemporary pop culture and looking at things like stardom -  fame as a cultural pathology.